The past year has produced an avalanche of "best of the century" and "best of the millennium" stories and listings in the media. From the 100 most important events of the century to the 50 best entertainers to the 25 best athletes, it seems that there is a list for every interest.
Such listings are more than speculative fancies. A historical rarity such as the event we are about to face on December 31 offers a prime opportunity to look back and consider those persons who have made such a difference in our lives and in our world.
Thus it is with preaching. As a way to celebrate the end of a century and the start of a new millennium -- and to celebrate the committed Christian preachers who have so influenced our calling and our faith communities -- Preaching magazine undertook an effort to identify the great preachers of our century and of the past thousand years. The search began with a request to our readers to nominate their own favorites. The result was hundreds of nominations of preachers who have made an impact beyond the lives of their own churches. Among the outstanding preachers who were nominated were names like F.W. Boreham, Oswald Hoffman, Walter Maier, John Maxwell, Harold John Ockenga, Fulton Sheen, and many more.
Based on those nominations, a list of 27 names was prepared and sent to Preaching's Board of Contributing Editors. That group was invited to identify and rank (1-10) their own list of the century's great preachers; they also had an opportunity to suggest names which had not been included on the original list. Their rankings were then tallied according to the rankings made by the contributing editors (giving increased weight based on the higher rankings) and the number of times a person was listed in each editor's "top ten." The result is in the list provided below.
For those who are interested in the names that didn't quite make the top ten, here's the "second ten" in the order they were ranked:
11. Leslie Weatherhead
12. George W. Truett
13. R.G. Lee
14. Norman Vincent Peale
15. Peter Marshall
16. E. Stanley Jones
17. Donald Grey Barnhouse
18. Ralph Sockman
19. W.A. Criswell
20. Gardner C. Taylor
What makes a preacher "great"? For purposes of this listing, the primary characteristic seems to be the influence that preacher had on the church and on the wider society. For example, while several persons commented that they would not be supportive of many of his theological positions, they could not deny the powerful influence Harry Emerson Fosdick exerted on the character of preaching in the modern era.
It is almost certain that no reader would identify the exact same ten preachers in making his or her own list; even given the same list of names, the order in which they appeared would vary widely from person to person. Yet one thing cannot be denied: every person on the list below has made a significant impact on countless lives, on the church, and on their fellow preachers.
1. James S. Stewart (1896-1990)